The exercise of quiet breathing and focusing on the present moment, mindfulness is a way to become aware of one’s emotional state and usher in a sense of calm. It can be particularly helpful for young people as a means to boost attention skills and cope with stress, according to a 2019 report published by researchers at Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research.
Districts across the state in recent years have begun experimenting with the practice.
Even though schools are now operating remotely, these practices are continuing online, and more important than ever, teachers said.
In the Bay Area, Pittsburg Unified is among the districts that have brought in mindfulness experts to lead classroom exercises for students, as well as teachers. Those lessons have now shifted online, but are needed more than ever, said Heather Davis Puerzer, a first-grade teacher at Foothill Elementary in Pittsburg.
“I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who’s not feeling traumatized right now and couldn’t benefit from this,” she said. “My kids seem to really get something out of it. Some of them have even started asking for it — that’s how I know it’s working. I know it’s working for me.”
Since campuses closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, interest in mindfulness techniques for young people has soared, said JG Larochette, director of the Mindful Life Project, a Richmond nonprofit that serves Oakland Unified, San Francisco Unified and other Bay Area school districts.
Downloads of the organization’s free app, available on its website, have increased 250 percent in the past two months, he said. Free videos and online lessons in English and Spanish are also available.
“It’s not a surprise,” he said. “The keys to good mental health for many people — stability, routine, interaction with peers — have all been taken away. It makes sense that some people are feeling angry, afraid, hopeless.”
For children, especially those who have experienced trauma, learning to recognize and manage negative emotions can have a beneficial impact on behavior, mood and brain development overall, according to researchers.
When under stress, the brain releases “fight-or-flight” jolts of adrenaline. If the stress is frequent, the effect on children — whose brains are still developing — can be profound. A recent study by researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine used brain scans to show that chronic anxiety altered children’s emotional-regulation brain circuits, making them more likely to suffer from long-term mood disorders.
Taking a few minutes every day to clear one’s head and think about nothing but the sound of one’s breathing can, over time, help reverse some harmful effects of chronic stress, Larochette said.
“The good news is that the brain has plasticity,” he said. “It can adapt and change. The younger you start, the better.”
Sarah Maria Carbajal-Salas, a fourth-grader at Foothill Elementary in Pittsburg, did not need convincing. The mindfulness techniques she learned in school have changed her whole outlook, she said.
“Before, if something made me angry or frustrated, I’d be like that the whole day,” she said. “But now when I get like that, I just take a few breaths and calm down.”
The Steve Fund, a national nonprofit focused on mental health for students of color, encourages young people to practice mindfulness and other relaxation techniques to help cope with day-to-day stress.
For some students of color, in particular, the ongoing demonstrations and public spotlight on police brutality and systemic racism have led to heightened anxiety, said Sandra Timmons, the organization’s interim executive director.
Those anxieties are compounded by the stress all students are facing about school closures, the recession and the pandemic.
But while practices like mindfulness, yoga and exercise are important, they don’t solve everything, she said. Schools need to play a bigger role in tending to students’ mental health, especially for those who are black or Latino and are facing extra stress during this time, Timmons said.
Schools need to hire more black and Latino counselors, establish peer counseling groups and crisis lines, and train teachers to address race and mental health generally in the classroom, she said.
“Young people are very resilient, but we need to help them, as well,” she said. “They’re going through a lot right now.”
That sentiment was echoed by Jody Miller, head of Esther B. Clark Schools, which has campuses in San Jose and Palo Alto. The schools serve students in kindergarten through 10th grade who have been referred by Bay Area school districts for mental health and behavioral services.
Her schools offer weekly mindfulness sessions to students and teachers, but nothing replaces positive one-on-one attention from adults, she said. While school campuses are closed, that responsibility primarily falls on parents.
“My advice is to just listen to kids. Be available, and don’t minimize whatever they’re experiencing. Talk to them about what’s going on. Let them ask questions,” she said.